Sexual Harassment and Legal Work: We’ve got a shamefully long way to go.
Trigger warning: This article includes discussions of sexual harassment. If you find this disturbing or upsetting, please contact 1800RESPECT or Lifeline for support.
The commonality of sexual harassment in a profession aimed at protecting victims is disturbing. In the legal field, 82% of women and 15% of men will experience sexual harassment during their careers. Unfortunately, most incidents go unreported, and even those who do report have unfavourable experiences.
Notably, former Justice of the High Court, Dyson Heydon, sexually harassed six female associates following a formal investigation in June 2020. Allegedly, Heydon’s crimes were an ‘open secret’ among his colleagues. The 2019 Report, Sexual Harassment in the Legal Sector, shamefully confirms that everyday sexism is accepted as part of the job.
Although complex, the abuse of power stemming from established patriarchies in the legal profession makes disclosing experiences of sexual assault difficult, if not impossible for survivors. Fresh graduates, those least experienced in the field, are typically most vulnerable to this kind of predatory behaviour. Fear of social rejection from colleagues and the potential impact that disclosure can have on career progression further prevents accountability.
As Monash law students, we should be angered and well-informed about the issues present in the workforce we are soon to inherit. Heydon’s crimes are not an isolated incident, and current statistics are indicative of failing sexual harassment laws.
The Power to Prevent Coalition, a union of over 100 legal organisations, have made legal recommendations to support victims and increase workplace safety.
These recommendations include:
Investment in dedicated prevention efforts.
Legally imposing an enforceable positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
Fairer and more effective complaints processes.
Accessible reporting tool facilitating anonymity.
Specialised advocacy and support for victims.
In March 2021, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews released a statement announcing the establishment of a ministerial taskforce to develop reforms combating workplace sexual harassment. This might be progress. But programs like these have failed in the past. There is a long way to go before meaningful progress against workplace sexual harassment can be made.